The election contests for directors of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District typically are not controversial. In fact, rarely do they draw much public attention at all.
This year’s race, however, has sparked a hostile—and racially tinged—battle between two candidates endorsed by the Loudoun County Democratic Committee.
The two—incumbent John Flannery and first-time candidate Michelle C. Thomas—are among six candidate running for three seats on the board, whichworks with federal, state, and local authorities and the private sector to promote educational and technical programs in the field of natural resources conservation, provide advice on the handling of conservation issues, and administer other specific programs.
A war of words between the two became public weeks ago when Flannery wrote about Thomas’ candidacy on his personal Facebook page. In the Sept. 17 posting, Flannery wrote that he had “reluctantly come to the conclusion that [Thomas] is unsuited to public office.”
His post urged both the LCDC and Thomas’ supporters to reconsider their endorsement of her, and pointed specifically to Thomas’ attendance at the SWCD’s meeting from the previous evening, where he claimed that, in words or substance, she said she couldn’t sit in the same room with the directors and staff who were present. Flannery also wrote that Thomas, who is the founder of the Loudoun Freedom Center and serves as president of the Loudoun Chapter of the NAACP, “has no interest in performing the unglamorous position of helping our landowners, no matter their color, to protect our soil and water.” Emails shared withLoudoun Nowthat were attributed to Flannery also underscore his assertion that a position on the SWCD board has nothing to do with race, but of performing a public service.
One of Thomas’ campaign tenets has been to increase diversity on the board, as well as to increase its community outreach in the ever-diversifying county. Thomas acknowledged that she and Flannery reached out to each other in the early months of her campaign about collaborating on a joint slate, since voters select three candidates on November’s ballot. She said her outreach to Flannery ahead of her campaign launch went unanswered, and it was only after word of her campaign launch spread that he reached out. Thomas said Flannery was upset that she did not want to run her campaign in the way he recommended, and she described his recent Facebook post as a “public lynching” in an effort to get her un-endorsed by the local Democratic party. She also said Flannery has misconstrued her message about criticizing the lack of diversity on the board as an assault of racism.
“That was never the intention,” she said. “I think we all can look at the numbers and know that African Americans who have [historically] done all of the farming in Loudoun now are left out of the farming equation. We know that’s the problem. Part of the problem is systemic racism. That doesn’t mean everyone on the board is racist. For John to turn my inquiry into a personal assault, he’s just wrong for that.”
When reached by Loudoun Now, Flannery elaborated on Thomas’ actions at the Sept. 16 SWCD meeting. Flannery claims that Thomas said she was “uncomfortable in a room full of white people” and called both Flannery and his wife Holly, who serves as an associate director at the SWCD, racists and liars. That exchange came after Flannery said he encouraged her to change the emphasis of her campaign from one about race to the matters that come before the SWCD.
Flannery said he has heard from several elected officials and private citizens throughout Loudoun County that they have had similar interactions with Thomas.
“I have talked to public officials and private persons and when she does not get her way she calls them a liar and a racist,” he said.
Flannery says, as a veteran of both the legal industry and political scene, he can handle the criticism, but said he is upset that Thomas’ charges have cast his colleagues on the SWCD in an undeserved negative light.
Both candidates have seen their show of public support on social media for the recent back-and-forth, including Thomas’ predecessor as Loudoun NAACP president. Phillip Thompson, immediate past president of the Loudoun NAACP, has said he intends to file a lawsuit against the SWCD in response to an initial FOIA request that he filed the day of Flannery’s post, Sept. 17. He has since filed a second request with a narrower scope after the SWCD FOIA representative responded that the cost to fulfill his original request would be in excess of $10,000 for the information he sought and the time to compile it. That information included a copy of the board’s budget from the last three years; the names and addresses of grant recipients; expenditures; and information on diversity and equity programs. His second request, which has not yet been answered, narrowed the scope of the request to focus on the diversity and equity programs.
“The way John responded to Pastor Michelle in such a way was over the top,” he explained in his reasoning in seeking the FOIA request. “The question becomes what’s going on. Are you hiding something?”
Flannery emphasized there is nothing to hide and believes the FOIA requests are a time-consuming attempt at finding something to justify their accusations against the SWCD.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story that appeared in this week’s newspaper did not include direct comments from John Flannery. As he was reached after the newspaper’s deadline, his comments have been added to this online article.